Wagner Singing Competition at the Wigmore

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Climatic scene from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde 1910 Rogelio de Egusquiz

 

1979 was my A-level year. Also the year I discovered Richard Wagner.

We had one good stereo system in our sitting room which pumped out rock, pop, jazz and classical at all hours, to all corners of our Victorian house in Barnes.

One Sunday afternoon, hunched over Frank Wedekind’s play, Frülingserwachen (Spring Awakening), I heard a slow, rising, crescendoing soprano voice drift up the stairs to my bedroom at the top of the house. Liebestod, Mild und leise, from Tristan and Isolde, was my first introduction to Wagner. Never had I heard anything so sweet and so gut wrenching. Isolde’s climatic cries ran right through me. To say that I was blown away is an understatement. 

Jesse Norman singing Mild und leise. Tristan and Isolde

Some people find Wagner excessive, his operas too protracted and let’s not even talk about his moral and political shortcomings! There is no doubt that he was complicated. He did hold anti-semitic views and yet had close Jewish friends. His step-father meanwhile, was not only rumoured to be his true father, but also Jewish. Hitler’s championing of Wagner after his death, did the composer no favours of course.

On the music front, Wagner was and is phenomenal. He revolutionised opera, injected it with high drama, and by doing so, he really made the singers live their roles. His music  was not only romantic and rich, it was multi-layered and exciting, his haunting recurring leitmotifs, climatic highs, took opera to another level.

Despite being seduced by his music from an early age, I am no connoisseur. There have been few fully staged Wagner operas on offer in the UK for the past few years. However I was heartened by the news that Tristan and Isolde is coming to ROH in April 2020. This coupled with semi-stagings of the RingCycles at the Festival Hall, set for 2021, is an exciting prospect.

So it was with great interest that I came across the Wagner Society Singing Competition last week. The final was to take place at the Wigmore Hall.  Prizes and bursaries were on offer, also the chance for the winners to travel to Bayreuth to sing on the prestigious Student programme. Each of the finalists were to perform a piece by Wagner and a second one by a composer of his or her choice.

At the Wigmore, I perused the programme which stated that 2019 had produced a record number of participants. The biographies revealed three sopranos, two baritones and one tenor who had made it to the final seven. I looked round the art and crafts auditorium,  and thought I spotted Hugh Canning, Sunday Times music critic and one of the judges, up above in the balcony looking down on us mortals.

Out stepped the first entrant, James Corrigan, Scottish baritone. Corrigan sang Wolfram’s Act 2 aria from Tannhäuser, where Wolfram performs in a singing competition at the medieval court of Wartburg. (Might Corona have chosen this aria for this reason?) It is a simple aria about holy and courtly love. Corrigan’s baritone was pleasingly golden, his performance discrete but assured and in character.

Lucy Anderson, who followed, sang a engaging Eva from Die Meistersinger Quintet, with lovely rises, hitting the top notes confidently, but it was her Magda in Menotti’s The Consul that showed her true grit. This opera, conceived at the height of the Cold War, is drama personified and not out of place in a Wagner competition. A sample of the libretto below…

‘Started crying and I couldn’t stop myself

I started running but there’s no where to run to

I sat down on the street and took a look at myself

Said where you going man you know the world is headed for hell

Say your goodbyes if you’ve got someone you can say goodbye to’

It was a challenging sing, a brave choice, but Anderson has the personality to carry it off. Look forward to seeing her Tatiana in Tchaikovski’s Onegin at Opera Holland Park 2020, where she’ll be taking part in the excellent young artists’ scheme.

Dominic Bevan’s interpretation of Lohengrin’s Farewell, In fernem Land was sung with fervour and great delicacy. The tightness in Bevan’s voice, brought about by nerves, made his performance all the more touching and moving.

Meanwhile powerful soprano, Australian born Kiandra Howarth, risked dislodging a few tiles from  Wigmore Hall’s gold cupola at full volume. What a voice! Howarth who has been on Royal Opera’s Jette Parker programme, showed perfect vocal control and made light work of Elsa’s Dream, Einsam in trüben Tagen (Lohengrin) Radiant in a bright orange chiffon dress, she brought great energy and brightness to the soberly-lit hall.

The very elegant mezzo-soprano, Yuki Akimoto, a vision in red this time, brought gravitas and tremendous feeling to her Isolde role, performing Mild und leise to perfection.  I had come to the competition hoping to hear it and I was not disappointed. A very professional and assured performance. (Just the over enunciation of German ‘d’, ‘t’s in English, which needed toning down a bit)

Baritone, Jolyon Loy, has a beautiful baritone, but at the competition his talents didn’t come to the fore, lost between two spectacular soprano performances. I have since listened to him on Youtube and I think you will all agree, he is going places https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCeNhc7NamgMbnT56_-Btq_A Here he is singing Wolfram’s aria, O du mean holder Abendstern, which he sang at the competition.

Finally, I need to take a breath before announcing this young woman. She is Ukranian, petite with a  sublime voice! Her Wagner aria was superbly executed but it was singing Verdi’s Ave Maria (Otello), that Nataliia Temnyk brought the house down! Goose bumps, heart racing, I dropped all my papers when I rose from my seat.

A remarkable event and at my time of writing I still don’t know which singers will be making their way to Bayreuth next summer!

KH

The Wagner Society. Only £30 to join up for the year for which you enjoy great perks. https://wagnersociety.org

 

Favourite things: Wigmore Hall, London

The first in an occasional series in which ArtMuseLondon reviewers select favourite art works, places, music…….

Wigmore Hall, nestling unobtrusively just a stone’s throw from the bustle and litter of Oxford Street in a row of tall Edwardian façades, is London’s pre-eminent venue for chamber music, song recitals and solo piano concerts. It was built to provide the city with a venue that was impressive yet intimate enough for recitals of chamber music. With near-perfect acoustics, the hall quickly became celebrated across Europe and featured many of the great artistes of the 20th century.

Originally called Bechstein Hall, it was built by the German piano manufacturer Carl Bechstein, whose busy showroom was next door, and opened on 31 May 1901. At the turn of the twentieth century, Carl Bechstein was Europe’s leading piano maker, its instruments preferred by most pianists outside America, where Steinway predominated. The Bechstein piano company built similar concert halls in Paris and St Petersburg to showcase its instruments and the leading performers and singers of the day. With its special barrel roofed oblong design, beloved of many musicians, the hall boasts a fine acoustic, while its small size (its capacity is c600 seats) makes it the perfect place to enjoy intimate chamber recitals.

bechstein-hall

When it opened, Bechstein Hall was promoted as the best of places for intimate music making, and boasted unrivaled comfort and facilities for patrons and artists with its elegant green room up a short flight of stairs behind the stage (so that singers did not arrive on stagBechstein Hall programmee breathless). At the time of its opening, concert life and leisure in general in London were enjoying something of a revolution. Theatres and music halls were opening across the west end, a wide public was being introduced to the experience of shopping for pleasure in the new “department stores” (Selfridges is a mere 10 minute walk, at the most, from Wigmore Street), and with cheap and efficient public transport, it was easy for people to enjoy these delights in the centre of the metropolis. A new breed of international concert promoters, agents and impresarios, such as Robert Newman, who with conductor Henry Wood founded the world-famous Proms, were dedicated to organising high-quality recitals, and Bechstein Hall alone scheduled two hundred concerts. The opening concert featured the virtuoso pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni and violinist Eugène Ysaÿe; soon London’s concert-going populace were flocking to Bechstein Hall to see Frank Merrick and Leopold Godowsky, Artur Schnabel, Chopin specialist Vladimir de Pachmann, Camille Saint-Saens, Max Reger and ‘Valkyrie of the Piano’, the Venezuelan lady pianist Teresa Carreňo. The hall continues to enjoy special associations with leading international performers to this day.

The hall was designed by architect Thomas Edward Collcutt who also designed the Savoy Hotel on the Strand. The interior is Renaissance style, with marble and alabaster walls, and above the small bell-shaped stage is a beautiful Arts and Crafts frieze designed by Edward Moira depicting the Soul of Music. In the lights of the hall, the frieze vibrates with the burnished radiance of a Byzantine mosaic.

WigmoreHallInterior-3

During the First World War, it became increasingly difficult for Bechstein Hall to trade viably. Strong anti-German sentiments and the passing of the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act 1916 led in June 1916 to the hall’s closure, and all property including the concert hall and the showrooms was seized and summarily closed. The hall was sold at auction to Debenhams, was rechristened Wigmore Hall and opened under its new name in 1917.

Alongside its reputation for chamber music of the highest quality, the Wigmore’s audience is famous for its loyalty, intelligence and discernment. It is considered by many musicians to be one of the most demanding audiences of any international concert hall, which brings its own unique set of pressures, and many performers will play a programme in regional venues and for local music societies before “doing a Wigmore”. But the hall holds a special place in the affections of many performers, who regard it as their artistic home in London.

There are no rough edges in this beautifully proportioned, perfect shoe-box of a hall, no jarring modern architectural details to confuse and distract. The tread of the thick crimson carpets is complimented by the red Verona marble frieze, the bustle of Oxford Street and the West End forgotten in the spacious vestibule and elegant green room. Whether playing at the Wigmore or being in the audience, one feels a sense of history, of heritage, for the Wigmore inhabits a different era and ethos to other concert venues in London. All the time one is aware of the great performances that have taken place in the hall, and the walls of the green room are lined with photographs confirming the heritage of the hall: Rachmaninoff scowling, as if the last thing he wanted to do was play the piano, Britten’s severe stare, Tippett’s twinkling eyes.

Vikram Seth’s “sacred shoebox”* is also my sacred space, and when I walk through the glass doors into the vestibule, usually having battled against home-going commuters (everyone going the opposite way to me!), I feel a palpable release of tension. As a member of the audience, attending a concert at the Wigmore has its own special rituals from the moment one steps through the glass doors. The richly-carpeted vestibule is a place where people meet, queue for tickets, purchase programmes, CDs or magazines. Sometimes if you arrive early, you might hear the soloist warming up or the piano tuner making some final adjustments, and that can lend an extra frisson to the evening, a tantalising hint of what is to come. Downstairs the bars and restaurant resonate with lively pre-concert conversations, and sometimes when I am there with friends we might spot a “musical celebrity” – Steven Isserlis, Alfred Brendel, Julian Lloyd Webber. I usually arrive in good time for drinks and chat with friends before the audience bell summons us to the hall and we happily sink into the plush comfort of the crimson seats. In the auditorium, in the moments before the concert begins, one senses the great collective breath of the audience’s expectation.

In 2006, attending a concert of piano music by Fryderyk Chopin by a British pianist I’d never encountered before, the Wigmore Hall took on an additional significance for me, signalling the start of an at times intense and deeply-felt friendship with the pianist who played that night. It was a difficult period in my adult life, a time when I realised, with a shock, that the boundaries of one’s emotional life are not completely impermeable, but ultimately it led, indirectly, to my writing about music for my blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist and in concert reviews, and to taking up the piano again seriously in my 40s. In fact, on reflection, Wigmore Hall rather than pianist had the greater influence: the place provides me with ongoing pleasure and stimulation, and I attend a concert there at least twice a month.

People, usually those who have never stepped inside the Wigmore let alone enjoyed a concert there, grumble about the great age of the audience, but this fiercely loyal audience is what makes the hall – for without an audience there is no such thing as a “concert”. In fact, the Wigmore audience is getting younger and more diverse as the hall has broadened its remit. Today, in addition to lunchtime, evening and Sunday morning “coffee concerts” (where the ever-popular sherry is served after the concert), Wigmore Hall offers a lively education programme, music for small babies and toddlers, and “Wigmore Lates”, concerts which start at 10pm and include not just classical music but jazz and folk too. There are masterclasses and study days with leading performers and composers on subjects such as Schubert’s last piano sonatas and coping with performance anxiety. And on the annual London Open House Weekend visitors can explore the backstage area and even take to the stage, momentarily at least, and maybe dream of playing to a full house…..

FW

 

*Vikram Seth – ‘An Equal Music’


wigmore-hall.org.uk

 

 

Variations on a traditional programme – Inon Barnatan at Wigmore Hall

 

George Frideric Handel – Chaconne in G major HWV435

Johann Sebastian Bach – Partita No.4 in D major BWV828, II. Allemande

Jean-Philippe Rameau – Premier livre de pieces de clavecin, IV. Courante in A minor

François Couperin – Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre 12 No. 8 L’Atalante

Maurice Ravel – Le tombeau de Couperin, IV. Rigaudon

Thomas Adès – Blanca Variations (UK première)

György Ligeti – Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10

Samuel Barber – Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op. 26, IV. Fuga: Allegro con spirit

Inon Barnatan, piano

Wigmore Hall, London

 

 

Israeli’s pianist Inon Barnatan’s 27 June Wigmore Hall concert demonstrated the “power of the programme”. Called Variations on a Theme, the first half of the concert consisted largely of single movements from suites, old and new, while the second half was occupied with Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel.

Initially, the first half of the programme could have been a curious mish-mash, a faux Baroque suite cobbled together from movements cherry-picked from works by Handel, Bach and their French contemporaries Rameau and Couperin, Ravel and Ligeti, and contemporary composer Thomas Ades. In fact, when I posted a picture of the programme on Facebook, a couple of friends commented that it “looks a bit Classic FM” and “how bizarre”. These comments in themselves are interesting, suggesting that a “proper” concert must consist of complete works, not fragments or single movements. Meanwhile, the Telegraph reviewer cites “shorter attention spans” as a reason for creating programmes like this.

This programme worked for me, and I admit that I selected the concert purely on the basis of the works by Ravel (the Rigaudon from the Tombeau de Couperin), Ligeti (two movements from Musica Ricercata) and the Ades Blanca Variations. I felt the concept was imaginative and witty – exploring the notion of variations in music through multiple approaches – and the selection of works created the similar ebb and flow of energy, rhythmic vitality, lyricism and repose as one would find in a Baroque suite, and the mixture of Baroque and modern/contemporary music allowed one to draw intriguing parallels between the individual works. Common motifs, such as filigree figurations and contrapuntal writing within the individual movements, created a sense of continuous throughout the first half, and each work gave Inon Barnatan the opportunity to demonstrate his versatility, switching with ease from the grandiloquent opening Chaconne in G by Handel to the poignant lyricism of the Allemande in D from Bach’s fourth keyboard partita. In addition, there was plenty of very elegant jeu perlé playing and crystalline passagework to savour, and a clear sense of the individual characters of each work.

Adès’ Blanca Variations, a set of five variations upon a traditional Sephardic song ‘Lavaba la blanca niña’, were delicately coloured and rhythmically complex, with much Baroque ornamentation in the later movements, thus connecting the work back to Bach’s Partitas or Couperin’s Pieces de Clavecin. This melancholy work had a sweeping virtuosity which Barnatan approached with understated panache.

The first half closed with a rollicking performance of the final movement of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, Op 26, a fugue whose strict construction reflects the composer’s love of Bach.

The programme was played without as an uninterrupted sequence, with no applause until the end, which further reinforced the concept of a suite of pieces and made for a most absorbing hour of music. Not everyone could pull off a programme such as this, but Barnatan clearly relished the challenge of these interesting juxtapositions and gave a most convincing and absorbing performance.

I regret that tiredness forced me to leave before the Brahms, but I look forward to listening to the entire concert on the BBC iPlayer.

FW